It's hard to come so close and not quite get there. Just ask the Texas Rangers after this year's World Series. Ask the Butler Bulldogs after March Madness. Ask the New England Patriots after going 18-0 then losing the Super Bowl.
Ask FC Stars of Massachusetts.
Last July the U17 squad was one win away from competing for a national championship – twice.
In the US Youth Soccer Region I final, Stars of Mass faced New Jersey's PDA for a trip to the National Championships in Phoenix. Though Stars had already beaten PDA once in the opening rounds of the regional, the team came up short in a 3-0 loss. PDA went on to represent Region I at nationals.
Two weeks later, Stars of Mass faced PDA again, this time for a chance to play for the Elite Clubs National League Championship. The semifinal game ended 2-1, sending Stars of Mass home disappointed again.
So this year, the girls from Massachusetts know exactly what they have cut out for them.
It's opening weekend for the ECNL Northwest Conference -- a-power packed collection of eight clubs in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. The conference includes FC Stars of Mass and their two biggest nemeses, PDA and fellow Boston-area club Scorpions.
Stars of Mass opens the ECNL schedule Saturday with a match against World Class FC in New York. It's the first of two matches before heading to Sanford, Fla., at the end of the month for the ECNL National Showcase.
U18 head coach Jason Dewhurst said that this weekend will be a good test for his team.
"We don't know much about them, to be honest," said Dewhurst of this weekend's opponent. "We just need to show up and play our game. We’re going to be as prepared as we can be, coming off the high school season."
Dewhurst said he has had "about three or four weeks" to work with the squad. High schools play a fall schedule in the Northeastern states, so all clubs in the conference have a similar turnaround time before starting ECNL play.
For Stars of Mass, the match against World Class will be followed by a showdown with Scorpions next weekend. The original schedule also included a December match with PDA, which was rescheduled so PDA could attend the GSA Showcase this weekend in Atlanta.
Dewhurst said these December games are like tune-ups for his squad, to get them reacquainted to the ECNL level of play.
"Our plan is to get ready for Florida because that's our first national event," Dewhurst said. His squad must face Flight A-leading Dallas Sting at the Florida event.
But Dewhurst also knows his team can compete with anybody. With the duo of Hayley Dowd and Morgan Andrews, both Boston College commits, the Stars of Mass offense will be hard to stop.
So will the PDA offense. And the Scorpions offense. And if you ask Dewhurst, so will just about everyone else in the Northeast.
"It's a tough conference, and it's a very hardworking conference," he said. "There are no easy games."
World Class FC embarks on first ECNL season
World Class FC out of New York joins the ECNL this year, making them the second club from the Empire State in the league. World Class FC begins its ECNL schedule this weekend by playing host to FC Stars of Massachusetts. In other words, welcome to the big leagues.
World Class U16 coach Osborne Carter says he expects the first few weekends to be a learning experience for his team.
"It's going to be an adjustment," says Carter. "It's a step up from what we're used to. We'll have to experience it to really know what the commitment is."
The U16 squad features Clare Shea, a regional ODP midfielder who has caught the eye of the US Soccer Federation. But Carter says the strength of his squad is its balance and teamwork.
"Our goal is to play a good brand of soccer, to work on skills and ball possession, and to develop our players," Carter says. "We're excited to get started to really see what it takes to compete at this level."